the Barnes foundation

Over Thanksgiving weekend I visited Philadelphia. Started with a swing to the south to Longwood Gardens, a 325 acre gem established in 1907 by Pierre du Pont. Before the du Pont purchase, its origins go back yet further to Joshua and Samuel Pierce who started an arboretum in 1798. To that du Pont added a sprawling conservatory which alone is worth the price of admission. Then there are the outdoor gardens, woodlands, prairies, fountains, formal gardens, topiaries, rose garden, theatre garden—a horticultural cornucopia. Admittedly, late in november the grounds are not in their full glory, but it was, nevertheless, a pleasant sunny day just right for getting a taste of what’s there. Every year, beginning Thanksgiving day, they also feature a massive display of holiday lights to brighten the long dark hours of winter.

Took in the Philadelphia Art Museum on Friday. The collection is impressive, the building grandiose, and the display of artwork topnotch. It’s definitely a cultural stop that requires multiple visits to fully appreciate. Nearby is the Barnes Foundation. In a recently completed building, the art collection of Dr. Barnes finds itself in a very strategic new location, but first a little background.

During his lifetime, Dr. Albert Barnes was ridiculed for his collection of post-impressionism and modern art. In the 1920s, artists like Matisse, Glackens, Modigliani, Prendergast, Redon, Soutine were scoffed at; now they are venerated. Their work wasn’t worth the light of day, now their work is worth millions, the entire collection billions. The art intelligentsia of the day advised Dr. Barnes to buy old masters and not waste his time on those flash-in-the-pan upstarts. Barnes didn’t listen to the experts. He didn’t collect what he was supposed to collect (although he did acquire some old masters and earlier works), instead, he collected what he loved. And because few valued it, he amassed a huge assemblage of modern works for a song. The foundation houses more early 20th century work than any other museum in the world—not the New York Metropolitan, not the National Gallery of London, not the Louvre, not even the Museum of Modern Art. Zowie! Lesson learned.

The move of the collection, unfortunately, was in direct violation of the wishes Dr. Barnes as specifically detailed in his will. This opposition to a deceased’s testament is heinous. It also takes the collection away from the arboretum and gardens on which his wife devoted her energies. Together, the home they built for the art collection along with the remarkable collection of natural specimens on the surrounding grounds, they made a one-of-a-kind destination where art and nature coexisted symbiotically. It was a unique amalgam of plastic art juxtaposed with nature’s art. A place dedicated to education and contemplation. There was nothing else like it, and now, the opportunity to experience its special features as a unified whole are lost. The only saving grace is that the new building recreates the original interior and preserves the exhibition of the collection as Barnes himself had arranged. He grouped works by his own thematic interpretation. It’s the only honor the current board of trustees has granted the Barnes’ legacy. Another lesson.

If you’re interested in learning more, watch the 2009 documentary film, The Art of the Steal.

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